R&B star Kwaye on being discovered in an Uber: ‘I thought it was a bit weird’

A chance encounter in a Los Angeles cab led the British Zimbabwean singer to his first recording contract – and critical acclaim. He talks about the politics behind his funky R&B

Popstar ascents have become so predictable – unknown guest on dance track later re-emerges as a solo act – that it’s easy to be cynical of more elaborate backstories. And Kwaye’s is fairly eyebrow-raising. Within the first week of a year studying abroad at UCLA, the Zimbabwe-born, London-raised student met a producer who offered him some discarded tracks. In one day, Kwaye wrote a song called Cool Kids, about a generation creating its own culture.

Then he found himself in an Uber driven by “a former music industry exec”, and played him the song. The driver soon texted saying that a friend who ran an indie label wanted to meet. He picked Kwaye up and took him to the offices of Mind Of A Genius, where founder David Dann offered Kwaye free studio time, and signed him later that year.

At no point did Kwaye question whether this might be some organ-harvesting ruse. “That might be naïve of me,” he admits. “I thought it was a bit weird, it was all happening way too quickly, but the guy did genuinely seem cool. And it was in broad daylight.”

Cool Kids made it into the world, and it’s hard to doubt what Dann saw in it. Kwaye shares the elegantly funky vibe of Solange and Blood Orange, and the cool minimalism of Christine and the Queens. He can dance as well as those artists, too – the video shows Kwaye moving gracefully around the Thamesmead estate beneath a lurid pink sky. “Beauty in brutality,” he says of the setting. “Showing that there’s beauty in everything, you just have to choose to see it.”

At 23, Kwayedza David Kureya is part of a generation weaned on authenticity, fluent in personal branding and prone to platitudes about “growth”. Pushed for a concrete example of how Los Angeles helped him evolve, he says his fashion sense became even more eccentric, and he started wearing his hair in dreadlocks. He wanted to telegraph “self-love and self-confidence,” he says. “That I can dress like this and be a black British Zimbabwean boy, I can be a fan of music and anime and history, and all these different things that might not marry well in the eyes of people that like to box things. What you see is a complete version of me.”

Cool Kids appears on Kwaye’s debut EP, Solar, as does Little Ones, which sounds like Terence Trent D’Arby backed by Tears For Fears. The song deals with Kwaye’s first experience of marginalisation. He lived in Zimbabwe until he was three, when the family moved to Catford before settling in Kent when he was seven. As long as he respected his elders, his parents – dad a doctor who came to the UK on a Cambridge scholarship, mum a social worker who escaped prison and apartheid – gave him free reign to explore his interests.

He pursued acting and theatre, and stuck posters of Beyoncé and Michael Jackson to his wall. In Eynsford, he was the only black person in his primary school, and lost a close friend to a gang of racist boys who excluded Kwaye. It affected him hugely – music became “therapeutic” – but he harbours no hard feelings. “It was a very early example of how outside structures can impose beliefs that you’re not even aware of. The message in that song is that children aren’t born prejudiced, it’s something that’s learnt.”

As a teenager, he became obsessed with history, which taught him how these norms are enforced – namely by the lack of black British experiences in his textbooks. “We learned about African-American slavery in one lesson, it was very glossed over,” he says. “Because there’s less awareness, people are confused about the use of the n-word, or they make statements like, ‘Why does everything have to be about race? That doesn’t exist any more’. It’s because it wasn’t stressed as something significant in school. If we talk specifically about the relationship between African-Americans and the rest of America now, history’s staring everyone in the eyes but people don’t know how to address it.”

He can talk about this for days, he says. “But it’s something that I have no qualms in addressing. It’s important that we learn about black history.” A forthcoming single, What Have You Done, hides political subtext beneath a plea to an absent lover. “The US was built on the back of African-Americans, and they’ve given so much to the culture of what’s become the US now, but what have they got in return?” he asks.

Kwaye is smart and gregarious, and has a miraculously clean internet presence for someone who can’t remember life without it. One of his three older sisters is Shingai Shoniwa from 2000s indie band The Noisettes. He thinks seeing her life in the spotlight – and wanting to have a music career himself – made him careful about posting personal material online. It’s eerily forward-thinking, giving him almost total power to shape his public identity as an artist. “It’s only stressful if you overthink it,” he says.

His only fear is being misunderstood, or having close-minded people limit his potential – once his music career gets going, he also wants to pursue animation and TV. “I feel like I have so much to give, and sometimes it can be overwhelming, he says. “I wanna make sure that every time I step out there, I’m letting people know that there’s a lot more than meets the eye.”


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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